24 September 2006

The biggest compliment is to say that in the end you wondered what all the fuss was about. George Washington, the errant genius of this year’s Classic crop, trounced Araafa and his elders Court Masterpiece, Librettist and Proclamation in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes without turning a hair, before, during or after what should have been the most demanding race of his career.

Where was the sourpuss who refused to come in to the unsaddling enclosure after the English 2,000 Guineas and declined to leave the paddock for the Irish equivalent? Where was the tilted head that marked his runs at The Curragh and last time at Goodwood? It’s usually best to believe what your eyes tell you, not what biased parties want you to hear. George Washington’s resurgence can be put in the file of notable exceptions.

Trainer Aidan O’Brien’s comments have long been too enthusiastic to be merely hyping up the colt’s multi-million stallion value. The shy, retiring, bespectacled Master of Ballydoyle has become an accomplished thespian over the years but his whispered, head-shaking tributes to George Washington have real conviction about them. “He’s unbelievably special,” he said happily yesterday. “Everyone could see we had one or two little problems early on, but that was mainly immaturity. He is growing up. And it’s the class he shows through a race that makes him different.”

To aid the education, an old equine schoolmaster called Bashkar had come over on the plane from Tipperary and, already saddled, led the star pupil round the preliminary paddock. His attendant, Keith Dalton, was already helmeted to do lead- out duties at the first sign of trouble. George Washington, noticeably fitter and leaner than at Goodwood, behaved like a dutiful kid at Sunday school. So well that Bashkar didn’t even bother to go into the main paddock with him.

This paragon behaviour continued as the Irish star walked calmly on to the course and cantered down with no sense of drama. Perhaps sensing this, and noting that earlier race times showed that the rain had not materially softened the ground, punters abandoned their early-morning doubts and backed George Washington down to 13-8 favourite.

Mick Kinane settled the initially hard-pulling favourite  against the rail while stable companions River Tiber and Ivan Denisovich set only a reasonable gallop. The pace was not fast enough to satisfy Frankie Dettori, who moved Librettist up to attack before the final bend only to find himself forced wide by Seamus Heffernan on Ivan Denisovich. The stewards felt badly enough about this to slap a 14-day ban on Heffernan for interference and give the race some after-time sensation, with the normally genial Dettori spitting out such phrases as “foul play” at his Ballydoyle conquerors.

When tempers have cooled, you should bet big on an appeal. In normal race-riding convention Dettori was the maker of his own problems. He was going well enough to have passed Ivan Denisovich before the turn, but chose to sit beside him. Besides, there was only one tiny moment of potential interference which never altered Librettist’s momentum. Worst of all, he and his Godolphin stable-mate, Proclamation, both ran right out of gas long before the inish. The phrase “sour grapes” might even make an entry.

When Librettist came to tackle Araafa after that horse had taken over from Killybegs, George Washington could already be seen absolutely coasting on the inside. So much so that Kinane could pull him out with ease, and when he let him loose in pursuit of Araafa at the furlong pole there was only ever going to be one result. Five months on from the 2,000 Guineas, we were beginning to question the eulogies we heaped on George Washington in full stride. But here he was again, and better.

Kinane had him tight by the head and beneath him the sweep of the gallop had an unhurried majesty about it. Araafa stuck on just as well as when he won the St James’s Palace at the Royal Meeting, and the admirably consistent Court Masterpiece finished well to be third to frank the form. But the winning distance of one and a quarter and two lengths was no indication of their inferiority, although one still wonders what George’s reaction would be when his jockey next has to resort to the whip.

The winning Michael Tabor, Mrs John Magnier and Derrick Smith connections had already been in the winner’s enclosure for both the big two-year-old races, the Royal Lodge Stakes with Admiralofthefleet (trained by O’Brien) and the Meon Valley Stud Fillies’ Mile with Simply Perfect (trained by Jeremy Noseda). But George Washington was a class apart. His next target is the Breeders’ Cup Mile at Churchill Downs in November.

The winning time of 1 min 40.06 sec was very fast. It was a full second quicker than the rapidly run Royal Lodge Stakes and showed both how quickly this course now dries (connections of Nannina, withdrawn in the morning because of “soft” ground please note) and how George Washington has the speed to cope with the pace American races change off the final bend. He still has the blots on his copybook, but he’s maturing into a talent fulfilled.

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